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Ritz removal could benefit region lawmaker's daughter
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2015 Indiana General Assembly

Ritz removal could benefit region lawmaker's daughter

INDIANAPOLIS | Recent votes by state Rep. Bill Fine, R-Munster, to remove Glenda Ritz as chairwoman of the State Board of Education are raising eyebrows at the Statehouse, because Fine's daughter could personally benefit from the change.

Sarah O'Brien is one of 11 members of the state school board and would be eligible for election as chairwoman if House Bill 1609, the legislation removing Ritz, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, is approved by the Republican-controlled House and Senate and Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

In 2013, Pence reappointed O'Brien, a first- and second-grade teacher at River Birch Elementary School in the suburban Indianapolis town of Avon, to her second four-year term on the SBOE. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels initially picked her for the board in 2009.

Fine said he has been assured by House leadership that his affirmative votes to remove Ritz in the House Education Committee and on the House floor do not pose a conflict of interest, even under the more stringent House Ethics Code adopted this week.

"I was told that it wouldn't be an ethical conflict under the new rules," Fine said.

The first-term representative admitted he speaks with his daughter about state education issues but said he decides on his own which policies to support based on the best interests of Indiana and the 12th House District, which includes Munster, Highland and portions of Hammond and Griffith.

"I talk to my daughter from time to time about what is going on with the State Board (of Education) and the Department of Education, so I do get some information and her perspective," Fine said.

"But I listen carefully to the conversations in committee and to presentations on the chamber floor. I don't think it affects me one way or another."

O'Brien is paid $2,000 a year, plus travel expenses, for her service on the State Board of Education. The pending legislation removing Ritz as chairwoman does not provide a salary boost for the new board leader.

Fine said he doubts O'Brien even would want to be selected as chairwoman. Ritz's tenure has been marked by frequent conflicts with most board members over meeting rules and operating procedures.

"It probably would give her a lot more heartache, and I would probably advise her not to," he said.

Nevertheless, just the possibility that Fine is helping his daughter get a promotion doesn't sit right with state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, the deputy leader of House Democrats.

"I'm uncomfortable with it, and I think his constituents should be too. It's not like he's taking money under the table, but I still think it's creepy," Lawson said. "If I were in his position, I probably wouldn't vote on a bill that my daughter was going to benefit from."

Were Fine to recuse himself from Monday's expected House vote to advance the legislation to the Senate, it still almost certainly would win passage without his support.

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